Book review: Militant Minority

51r1N926CNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_By Gerard Di Trolio

Victoria city councillor Benjamin Isitt has written a detailed account of British Columbia’s radical left and labour movement in Militant Minority: British Columbia Workers and the Rise of a New Left 1948-1972. Isitt challenges many assumptions about the role of the left and labour movement in the so-called “Golden Age of Capitalism.”

By using B.C. has an example, Isitt shows how the postwar class compromise of the 1940s, was in fact what he calls a “tug-of-war” with B.C. workers not afraid to engage in wildcat strikes and break away from international American dominated unions to form all Canadian ones.

Another interesting piece of historiography is Isitt’s focus on the transition from the “Old Left” to “New Left.” Traditional accounts suggested their was a significant rupture between the two movements, with the Old Left going into terminal decline after the anti-Communist purges in the 1950s, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech outlining the crimes of Josef Stalin.

Isitt turns this account on its head. While many members of the Labour-Progressive Party (Communist Party of Canada before 1959) left the party in the late 1950s, its influence within B.C.’s labour movement never completely disappeared. Likewise, many Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) members in B.C. felt alienated by the creation of the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961, feeling it was too bureaucratic and represented merely an electoral machine instead of a social movement. It would be these members of what Isitt would call the “militant minority” that would bridge the gap between the Old and New Left in B.C.

Both the Old and New Left in B.C. would come together in the 1960s in the feminist, Indigenous rights, and peace movements. The conservatism of the NDP and the stale authoritarianism of the Communist Party also gave rise to new Trotskyist and Maoist movements that did not shy away from direct action. As Isitt explains:

Tied to the increased participation of women in the paid labour force, and ongoing male domination in labour unions and left parties, a layer of working-class women embraced women’s liberation and the ideology of socialist feminism, demanding pay equity, public child care, and reproductive choice; these women worked to change the unions and parties, and some employed forms of direct action that conflicted with the narrow electoralism of the social-democratic NDP (p. 198).

And despite the fact that the left had managed to survive the 1950s and begin to re-emerge, Isitt explains how ultimately the burst of movement energy in the 1960s would be undermined by the economic and social changes of the “tug-of-war.” Isitt discusses the rise of the suburb and technologies like television as a major reason for splintering working class solidarity and culture. Workers became more locationally diffuse no longer having all members of a single plant living in one area. Television was going to exalt the consumer age and create one mass culture, undermining traditional working class cultural expressions.

The world was changing fast, and by the time the B.C. NDP won power in 1972, the early stirrings of a renewed unconstrained capitalism – what we now call neoliberalism – was beginning to take shape. This would limit the government’s agenda.

Isitt ends his book before discussing in any real detail BC’s first NDP government, led by Dave Barrett, and its relationship to the labour movement and the rest of the left. He correctly identify that B.C.’s first NDP government made many important reforms like reforming the labour code and bringing in public auto insurance. However, at the same time, the government’s attacks on public sector workers and growing strained relations would help lead to its defeat in the 1975 election. Isitt notes that the B.C. NDP was transforming from a protest party into a status quo party.

Isitt’s book is ultimately about his concept of the “militant minority,” those dedicated activists who kept the radical left alive through the ups and downs of the immediate postwar era. As to whether it is an ideal term or concept is certainly open to debate. This militant minority transformed over time. Many of its members gave up on radical politics in the 1950s. Also there were minorities among the minorities. Some radical CCF members were open to working with the Communists while many other radical CCF members were not. Though the Labour-Progressive and later Communist Party of Canada demonstrated a united line, many de facto factions existed. By the 1960s, there was only going to be limits on how Maoists and Trotskyists could coexist within mass movements. There was never one coherent militant minority protecting radical orthodoxy through the history of the B.C. labour movement.

Celebrating and studying those who continued on a struggle in dark times is important. But ultimately, we must look towards new ideas of organizing and building solidarities when it comes to transforming a militant labour movement and Left from a minority to a majority. What we can learn from the militant minority in the book, is that we must be aware how economic and social changes may require us to rethink traditional strategies.

Nevertheless, Militant Minority is a detailed book detailing a piece of Canada’s Left and labour history that has been long overlooked. It is a great book to learn about many colourful and dedicated activists who aren’t exactly household names, but did so much to keep the movement going. It also features detailed appendices which include things like statistics on strikes in B.C. and even the Waffle Manifesto. It should be read to understand why radicals in Canada find themselves in the place they are now.

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